Category Archives: Italian

“Caprese” Sandwich with Goat Cheese

Goat Cheese Caprese

Goat Cheese Caprese

First off, let me apologize for the significant reduction in the frequency of posting on this blog. We began a new business venture last year and that has taken up a lot of my bandwidth. I will continue posting here but the frequency will be 1-2 posts a month.

This recipe was born really out of the desire to use up ingredients that were in the fridge. As you know, we are big fans of pizza in our house and lately we have switched to using grape/cherry tomatoes for Margherita Pizza since you can then get bite sized tomato pieces everytime you eat a slice. Plus, the flavor is actually pretty good. The idea came from, believe it or not, a railway station pizza from “Alice” in Florence (that was probably the best pizza I had in Italy). Anyway, after the last pizza session, there were a lot of tomatoes left over, as was a significant amount of goat cheese from the Kale Cranberry Salad (recipe here) and some french bread.

NOTE: Before I get the purists riled up, let me state this is not a Caprese sandwich. A true Caprese uses Mozzarella, Tomatoes and Basil. However, it definitely is a close cousin to it.

Anyway, back to the story – when life gives you cheese, tomatoes and bread – you make sandwiches. Which is exactly what I did. I made a little salad using Grape Tomatoes and then using Goat Cheese, made a sandwich. The result was pretty good and well worth a try. The salad was simple – Grape Tomatoes (sliced in thirds), Extra Virgin Olive Oil, shredded Basil leaves and some salt and pepper. The bread was a French Baguette and the cheese was Chevre.

Give it a try. I think you will like it.

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Spaghetti with Tomato Crudo

Spaghetti and Tomato Crudo

Spaghetti and Tomato Crudo

Every cuisine around the world has its comfort food. To my limited knowledge almost all of Italian food feels like comfort food. It tastes great, is simple to make, is unpretentious and hits all the right spots. This recipe is a classic example of what, to me, defines comfort food.

Crudo in Italian means “Raw”. Traditional Crudo dishes tend to involve dead animals. For instance, you have Sea Bass Crudo and Salmon Crudo. However, we discovered to our delight that there is also a Pomodoro Crudo. This dish is a hearty sauce made with fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil and served with Spaghetti.  The “raw” in this dish comes from using fresh tomatoes. The last time we had Pomodoro Crudo was at Rathskeller in Fredricksburg in the Texas Hill Country over the New Year and I had been itching to make it since then.

Even though Rathskeller calls the dish Crudo, they did not use fresh tomatoes. Since we are in the middle of winter, I decided to use canned tomatoes as well –  I started with my trusted favorite – Red Gold Diced Tomatoes. A little plug for Red Gold here. For Italian cooking, they are a great option to the more expensive Italian imported tomatoes. They are not available everywhere, but if you can find them, do give them a try. And, I just discovered, they have a tie up with Huy Fong (the Rooster sauce people) and make a Sriracha Ketchup as a joint initiative – Red Gold, which was already a favorite with me, has gone up several more notches in my book. Bravo!

The recipe itself is very basic but it makes for a very hearty meal. Here goes.

INGREDIENTS (for 4 people)

Good quality extra virgin Olive Oil – use generously – 3-4 Tbps

Chili Flakes – about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp – to taste

3-4 cloves of garlic

1 14.5 oz can of no-salt added diced tomatoes

Sea Salt – to taste

Some fresh ground black pepper – to taste

Some torn fresh basil (if you have it. I didn’t) or Dry Basil

Spaghetti – cooked al dente – as per instructions on the packet

Parmigiano Reggiano

STEPS

  1. Heat the Olive Oil in a saucepan
  2. Add the chili flakes and garlic cloves and cook till the cloves are just starting to change color
  3. Add the tomatoes and cook till they are heated through and soft – about 8 mins
  4. Add salt and pepper to taste
  5. Add the cooked spaghetti and cook till it is hot. Add torn Basil (or dry Basil if you like)
  6. Serve hot and grate some Parmigiano Reggiano on top if you feel like it.
  7. Finish eat and then repeat from Step 1.

 

 

 

 

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Pasta al aglio, olio e pepperoncino aka the simplest, most tasty spaghetti you have ever had

Pasta al aglio, olio e pepperoncino

Pasta al aglio, olio e pepperoncino

Italian food is known for its simplicity and use of great ingredients and this recipe is no different. The recipe is great but the way we learned it is pretty amusing too. In October of last year, the wife and I went to Tuscany for a week. We had a wonderful time, thanks in no small part to our wonderful hosts – Sonny and Alba, whose accomodations we stayed at (link here). As it turns out, Sonny is originally from Pakistan/India and misses the food. So one day, in exchange for letting us use the washing machine in the largest suite they have, I offered to make Baigan Bharta (recipe here) for Sonny.

The clothes were in the washer and Sonny had been dispatched to procure the necessary produce. Everything seemed to be on track. Alas, not everything was as rosy as the sunset that day. Sonny came back with a basket full of eggplants but no tomatoes, onions or garlic! Without those key ingredients, Baigan Bharta was not going to happen. At this late hour, all seemed lost to our inebriated group(hence nobody except for Sonny was in a fit state to drive and he didn’t want to). Our dejected group had resigned itself to a platter of cheese, fruit and bread. But all was not lost. Sonny came riding to the rescue, figuratively, on a box of spaghetti. Using just pasta, oil, garlic, parsley and cheese, he created something so lip-smackingly good that there was much dancing and laughing by the fire that night.

Since we have been back, this has become quite a staple in our household. The kids love it. We made a small change to the recipe – using chili flakes, the wife added a bit of kick to the recipe.

INGREDIENTS

Spaghetti (Whole wheat or Semolina) – as much as you want

Extra Virgin Olive Oil – use good quality stuff, this recipe is simple and you need good stuff

Garlic Cloves – peeled, use 5-6 when cooking for 4 people

Chili Flakes – to taste

Italian Parsley – minced, use about a couple of Tbsp when cooking for 4

Sea Salt

Parmesan Cheese – Grated (to top)

STEPS

1. Cook Spaghetti al dente according to instructions and drain. Save a little of the water.

2. In a large skillet pour a generous pour of Olive Oil (the bottom should be completely covered and then some)

3. Heat the oil to low medium and add the garlic cloves. Let the cloves cook for a long time (at least 20 minutes). If they are starting to brown, reduce the heat.

4. Add chili flakes (start with half a tsp and then adjust according to taste once you have made the recipe a couple of times) and cook for another 5 mins.

5. Add the cooked spaghetti, heat thoroughly.

6. Toss in parsley. Add salt to taste.

7. Serve immediately, topped with fresh grated Parmesan cheese.

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Pomarola Sauce – a Tuscan Tomato Sauce

 

Pomorola Sauce

Pomorola Sauce

Tomato Sauce and Italian food to me are like Peas and Carrots. They go hand-in-hand. I can’t think of one without the other. Clearly there are plenty of Italian dishes that are not tomato based but I would argue that the Tomato Basil sauce, from Pizza to Pasta, is probably THE signature sauce for Italian cooking.

In the US, the land of convenience, there are plenty of pre-made sauces available in stores from brands like Ragu. Oversalted, loaded with chemicals and low on flavor, these are terrible. I realized many years back that making a decent Tomato Basil sauce is not difficult and I haven’t gone back to store bought sauces since. However a recent trip to Tuscany (and a cooking lesson at Organic Tuscany) brought back the realization that a) I was still overprocessing the sauce, and b) Pureeing the sauce with a hand blender is not a good idea.

Italian cooking (and Punjabi cooking to some degree) follows the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. The cuisine is largely unfussy but relies on quality ingredients to bring out the flavors. With that philosophy, we were taught this excellent sauce by Manuela at Organic Tuscany. Manuela being the purist she is, did not think this sauce works well on Pizza, but her husband and I think it is a great all purpose Tomato Sauce for Italian cooking, including Pizza.

INGREDIENTS (Enough Pasta Sauce for 8 people, much more for Pizza)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

3 Lbs Tomatoes (use an assortment – Cherry, Roma, Heirloom) – roughly chopped

1 Medium Red Onion – peeled and roughly chopped

1-2 sticks celery – washed, peeled on the rib, and roughly chopped

1-2 Carrots – peeled and roughly chopped

5-6 cloves garlic – whole (whole cloves impart a subtle flavor)

20-25 Basil leaves

Salt and Pepper to taste

STEPS

1. Take a large saucepan and pour enough Olive Oil so it covers the bottom.

2. Heat oil on medium heat.

3. Add the vegetables and garlic, and let them cook, stirring often, till done. It takes about 30 minutes – you’ll know when it is done because the carrots would be soft.

4. Using a food mill, puree the sauce. NOTE: A food mill separates the seeds and skin from the sauce. A hand blender purees everything and results in a more bitter sauce.

5. Heat the sauce again and increase thickness (by evaporating the liquid) or decrease it by adding water.

6. Tear up the Basil leaves into the sauce.

7. Add salt and pepper to taste and you are done.

NOTE: You can make this sauce in large quantities and freeze it for use later.

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Mushroom Pizza with Black Truffle Oil

Quattro Formaggio Mushroom Pizza with Truffle Oil

Quattro Formaggio Mushroom Pizza with Truffle Oil

The last couple of times I have had great pizza (Serious Pie in Seattle and Olivella in Dallas) there has been one with Mushrooms, Cheese and Truffle Oil that has usually been the most stunning. So when on a recent trip to Italy, I came back with some excellent Truffle Oil – technically Olive Oil infused with Black Truffle, I decided to give it a try.

Couldn’t have been easier and it turned out really well. I made the dough like I usually do (see here). I then chopped up some mushrooms (I used a combination of Shiitake, Portobella and Porcini) and sauteed them with a couple of whole cloves of  garlic (to keep a subtle taste of garlic). I was ready.

I first stretched the dough for pizza, covered it with a thin coating of shredded Quatro Formaggio, then went the cooked mushrooms, some more cheese and then a drizzle of the Truffle Oil. Then the pizza went in the oven on my Baking Steel.

5 minutes later, I had a pretty stunning pie on my hands. Great taste and really easy to make.

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Organic Tuscany – Cooking Class

The wonderful world of Tuscan veggies

The wonderful world of Tuscan veggies

 

Our family loves to travel and it loves food. The two loves come together in the foods we seek out, the restaurants we try and eat at and in the cooking classes we often take when traveling. Its one thing to read up a recipe in a non-native cuisine, it is quite another to get the instruction from somebody who is immersed in the cuisine. And so, with that in mind, when we started thinking about a trip to Italy late last year, we first explored ways to take a full-week long immersion course in the food and wine of Tuscany. Many options came up on Internet searches but one name kept coming up repeatedly, with high ratings – Organic Tuscany. It looked really intriguing and we were ready to pull the trigger but then we decided to explore Tuscany more and cut back on the food and wine immersion. Thankfully, Organic Tuscany offered a one-day option at the beautiful home of Manuela and Silvio. We signed up.

Working with Manuela and Silvio was really easy, especially for vegetarians. They sent us a master list of dishes we could make, from which we could choose two appetizers, a first course, a second course and a dessert. Given what was in season and what we wanted to learn, we chose

Appetizers
Crostini with marinated bell peppers and goat cheese

Crostini with mushrooms and herbs
First Course
Gnocchi with fresh tomato and basil sauce
Second Course
Risotto with seasonal vegetables
DSC00791

Asparagus Risotto

Dessert
Apple tart with almond butter
DSC00785

Apple Tart

A fabulous spread of seasonal vegetables awaited us when we arrived at Manuela and Silvio’s house. Coming from the US, we were not used to seeing such wonderful produce (we get the insipid, genetically modified vegetables that look the same 12 months a year and have no flavor). There were tomatoes that dripped with flavor, earthy mushrooms and juicy asparagus to just name a few (see the first picture of this post to know what I am talking about). Silvio informed us that our menu was slightly modified because of what he found in the market. We would be making not one, but two types of Risotto (Mushroom and Asparagus). We started right away. Manuela put us to work with Silvio translating and Emma (their daughter) washing dishes as we went along.
Time flew by and after much laughter, learning and wine (Fattoi – Rosso di Montalcino – awesome!) we sat down to eat the best meal we had in Italy. My wife said, and I agreed, that this was easily the best day of our trip to Italy.
There were quite a few lessons we learned from Manuela and Silvio but here are the top five.
1. If the ingredients are good, don’t overprocess – We made a Pomorola (Tomato based) sauce to eat with Gnocchi with Tomatoes, Celery, Carrots, Garlic, Salt, Pepper, Basil and Olive Oil. No “Italian Seasoning”, Oregano, Thyme or Fennel. Simple. Straighforward. Delicious.
2. Ditch the mixer, use a food mill – I am used to using a handheld mixer (wand) to puree my sauces and soups. It works but also blends the skins and seeds. Enter the hand cranked food mill. No seeds or skins and the puree is just as good (I bought one two days after coming back from Italy).
3. Don’t butcher the garlic – Till we went to Italy, we always minced the garlic before using it in any recipe. After the trip, we are more mindful. Full cloves impart a more subtle aroma and can be ditched halfway through the recipe if needed.
4. The Mezzaluna – I now have another knife in my collection. The Mezzaluna. Had never heard of it or used it. Mezzaluna means crescent moon in Italian. That is exactly the shape of the knife. One uses a rocking motion to mince herbs. Given the amount of Indian cooking at our house, I anticipate heavy usage in making Ginger-Garlic paste. Click here to see what it looks like.
5. If the Olive Oil is good, let your dishes bathe in it – I was surprised at the quantity of Olive Oil that was used in each dish. However, the dishes never tasted heavy and the flavors were spot on.
Learning from Organic Tuscany was a wonderful experience for us and one we would highly recommend to all foodies heading over to Tuscany.

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Two tips to satisfy a Pizza craving

A slightly burned flatbread Pizza

A slightly burned flatbread Pizza with Walnut Pesto

I love making and eating Pizza, when done right, the process is time-consuming but the results are well worth it. For best results, the dough needs to be made 24-48 hours in advance and then cold fermented in the fridge (recipe here). Baking the pizza too, is time consuming because ideally you want the Pizza Stone or Pizza Steel to be preheated for a few hours before you bake. So what is one to do, if one develops a craving for Pizza but has neither the time nor resources – say when you have people to feed or lunch to send to school(and we all know cold pizza tastes pretty decent) – there are two things that have worked for me.

Tip 1– Use a rollup type flatbread as the base (I used a brand called Flatout, I think). This is not an original idea but something that I realized when I ate at the excellent Bombay Pizza Company in Houston. They don’t have a Pizza in the strict Italian sense of the word, they use a thin flatbread as the base. Turns out, it works fabulously well. You can put Tomato-Basil sauce, Pesto (recipe here), whatever toppings you like and Cheese and stick it in the oven on Bake (500F) or Broil/Grill for a few minutes till the cheese melts and bubbles. Since the base is pre-cooked and very thin, you need to make sure that it doesn’t burn. Good stuff.

Tip 2 – Make extra pizza bases when you are baking your “good” pizza. In other words, if you have gone through the pain of making the dough and preheating the Pizza stone, just go ahead and bake a few extra pies with no toppings or sauce. Make sure you only half cook them so they are just starting to rise and brown. These then can be frozen and brought out in a pinch, topped with sauce and toppings and thrown in the oven to make Pizza at a moment’s notice. They turn out much better than the store bought Pizza bases. Well worth having a few of these in the freezer.

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